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  • A letter to my brothers on casting the part of our father in the movie of our lives


    Suede: a leather that has been worked to produce a nap; made from splitting the underside of a hard leather and sanding the surface, suede is more pliable than typical leather; a suede belt will ‘snap’ faster, but the burred surface is softer and warmer than hard leather. Suede will protect you, but suede takes special care. Suede is often tattered. Ordinary leather left to exact elements can over time become like suede. Chamois is suede; it will destroy itself in an effort to produce a shine that nothing else can reveal.

    When we look for someone to play the part of our father, we will need to consider someone who can merge the following: Peter Faulk’s Columbo, Al Pacino in Serpico, Clint Eastwood from Grand Turino, and we can’t forget the Fonz. Do you remember how the kids at the gas station would ask if he was the real deal, and he’d give them a thumbs-up at the pump, his hair slicked back, a thick looping pompadour and those square sideburns? He’d check the oil, wipe the windows, and then send the passengers off with smiles after hanging the nozzle back in its nook, a grin and a flash of those knowing eyebrows as the kids told their parents “I told you so!” as they all drove off.
    I’m thinking Harvey Keitel, maybe, with that thin-lined smile from Mean Streets. And maybe De Niro, Raging Bull, someone who can hold the posture of a fighter, arms bent, knees slightly flexed, like he has stood for so many decades—always ready to deliver a punch, even if only taking a drag from his cigarette or a taste from his cup of tea. And that smile, playful, almost daring you to take the first swing.
    Do you remember our house on Parma? Of course you do. 607, our first address. With the exterior cedar panel siding, that soft grayish blue? Remember how we had to be careful while he was building the house so we wouldn’t get slivers from those panels, so we wouldn’t fall on nails, so we wouldn’t get smacked down by pieces of lumber coming and going? And those open stairs . . . how many years went by where we could have just fallen right through? Those cedar sheets always remind me of his voice, ruff but comforting, full of splinters but complete, a warm look despite those grabby little barbs that could hook into you at any second if you weren’t careful—“Outta the way, outta the way. C’mon c’mon ‘cmon ‘cmon c’mon. Outta’da’way, outta’da’way,” he would say, as he shooed us along from one small walk-way to another, navigating through those heaps of debris, those piles of material that would go into our house, those miles of tape, mud, nail boxes, glue tubes, screws, the fabrication of our youth. He would use that voice to keep moving us so he could continue to work.
    Even when he whistles a tune it has that texture. And when he sings, that layered voice pushed from a body that has taken belly-strikes, lungs that have wailed for lost children, a throat that knows the grip of his own father’s hands, of his brother’s hands, of your hands, a voice that could scream a man twice his size down to a quiet friend again, a rasp that could grow into an immediate tornado or whisper like a single leaf among the tall grass next to a pond in autumn; a voice that sounds like something was healing and breaking again at the same time, like a lining of blood he has tasted for decades has merged with a sweet coat of honey somewhere deep down in his throat. I’ve heard him break into song, but I’ve never heard him get lost in one long enough to finish. He’d just start singing some tune, some blues, and then after a verse or two, he would just stop, look over at you, flash those eyebrows up and down, playfully let you know there’s a spark of music under there. A little secret he’d choose to share now and again.
    When we look for someone, we will have to capture that voice, and we will need to see what we can do about the face, too. All that history below that full head of perfect hair, once jet black, now silver, still combed back thick, the same way he combed it in that old photo of him and his brother, matching do’s, sleeves rolled, bookend pre-teen greasers, each with a hand on the hip and a foot up on the bumper of that ‘56 Chrysler, their baby sister sitting on the hood between them—perhaps the last year his skin was still perfect. How many cars like that has he torn down? Stripped down to metal again, smoothing the surfaces, making it all clean again, perfect lines from every angle? “Everything is in the prep work,” he always said. “Painting anything is easy. It’s all prepping the surface. All of it, so once you put the paint to it, the eyes have nowhere to stop.” How many years has he spent creating pristine surfaces, something he lost long ago?
    We will need the face of someone who can appreciate and do smooth in a way most people simply cannot; maybe start with Edward James Almos from American Me, someone with the scars but not the panic. A topography that is not perfect but consistent. Beyond rugged, but not beaten. Someone who looks like they’ve been in accidents, like they’ve caused accidents, like they’ve rescued themselves and others from twisted metal heaps. We need someone whose face is marked from beer bottles—that one deposit at the corner of his left eyebrow and the small hunk taken from the end of his nose—and other marks from fist fights, from car wrecks, and all of it touched everywhere by the acne that drove him from school at the age of 15—one final fight with his father, and then he put down the pencil and picked up a hoc and a 10 inch knife, learned from Uncle Scotty what it would take to start smoothing his rage, to pay for a room, to make his way on his own terms, to have hands that can shape matter, move material, and eyes that would learn to smile in their hunt for perfection. How many walls has he built? How many structures has he had to repair before placing the final tins, the sheet rock, the finished layer of veneer? How many seams, cracks, and holes has he patched and filled, how many broken surfaces has he smoothed to make like brand new again, so that when you look, when it’s all over, not a single finger print, not a single brush mark, just a clean surface, so you’d never know a hand was there?
    I still have a piece of sandpaper he gave me when I was 16. I had moved in with him and Anne. I was driving him around, working with him every day in the summer, going to Hello Folks and Grand Tracks after a job to pay his guys, maybe shoot a game of pool, maybe close some loose ends or dig up some more work. Seeing me stir on my bar stool, itching to get out to catch up with my friends, he bought me a soda. He flashed his eyebrows up and down a couple of times real quick, gave me that smile, and he put his rough grips on my shoulders, massaged me a bit, tussled my hair, and then he said in his occasional Michael Landon way, “Take this,” giving me some cash, counting out the twenties one at a time, “. . . for your hours at Krupka’s . . . and some more just because,” adding a wink. “That’ll get you through for a while.” Then, pulling a quarter sheet of sandpaper from his shirt pocket, holding it up by a bottom corner, displaying it to me like it was the Eucharist, “and take this . . . because you’re gonna need it. This will help SMOOTH-out the edges; it will get you through the rough parts as you go along.” With his thick hands covering mine, he looked into me, pushed his bottom lip tight into his top lip, nodded a couple slow deliberate nods, winked again, and then turned away with a hurried, playful bark to the bartender, “Alright! Alright! What the hell is goin’ on over here? Why is my glass almost empty, sweetheart! C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, don’t let me go dry here, baby-doll, it’s a hot day-ey.”
    Remembering the summers of the early ‘90’s, driving that 1978 Ford F-150 Ranger we refinished, it seems appropriate to mention the small white molded plastic statue that rested on that dashboard. That little happy man, maybe 6 inches tall, with his arm around a giant wing-tip that was upright, standing slightly taller than himself, the details of the laces, the soul, the tongue all perfect. You gave him that little trophy for Father’s day so many years earlier, and he has kept it on the dashboard of every vehicle he has owned ever since. It has lasted through every season for decades. It still had three of the four green felt circles on the bottom of the base, and when you shook it you could hear the ‘hush-hush’ of the grains of sand, which had more room to move than they should, and which I knew were white and sharp and slightly bigger than table salt, because many years earlier while waiting for him to get some cartons of smokes, I pried open the little plastic cork on the bottom, and I had to sweep a little heap of pellets down the vents beneath the windshield of his old blue and white 1980 Chevy G-Series van. Even at a young age I understood the implications of the words across the front of the base, and now, even with the rest of the surfaces bleached from the sun, deep inside those deeply pressed letters, the dark dye is still prominent and just as clear: “No one can fill my Father’s shoes.”
    So, maybe that little gift you gave him was a prophecy. Maybe he kept that little guy up there to remind us. To make it deliberate. Like maybe he knew someday our story would have to be told. Maybe he was wishing us some sarcastic good luck. Or, maybe it was simply something that nudged him to be there for us in a way that maybe his old man was not there for him. Maybe he held it for so long out of obligation. Maybe he kept it as a tribute to you, to all of us, and at the same time as a reminder to himself.
    I’m sorry, I know I’ve gone off course a bit; I know that doesn’t seem very helpful, and I know we can’t operate on that as a premise. We can’t just not cast someone because no one can play the role. We will, at some point, have to make a decision if we are going to do this. I had some ideas for us, things to think about, some actors and characters that could help us get started, but now it is clear that we will come too soon to the crossroads where what he has always said, strive for perfection and you’ll end up with a very fine product, intersects with the ever practical the perfect is the enemy of the good. We want it right, but in the end, we'll need to decide. We can aim all we want; we can see the isolated bull’s-eyes on various targets, but at some point, the trigger needs to be pulled and we only have one shot. We will need to choose one.
    So, maybe we should take another approach. Maybe instead of starting with the marked complexion of Edward James Almos; the thin smile of Harvey Keitel; the loose, rambling wit of Colombo; the cool of the Fonzy; the tenacity of Serpico; the righteous disdain of Eastwood; the fight, reckless passion, and the hunger of Jake LaMotta; instead of imagining that if the Wolverine were mortal and you could watch him grow old, instead of thinking that if we could just take these elements from each of the above and drop them on a palette and stir them all together, add a final smudge of crimson, the smallest scosche of Van Dyke brown, and a final heaping-spoonful of resin made from crushing the barbs, pedals, stems, and the bold crowns of thistle—how if we could do that we might be getting close—instead of looking at an impossible perfect aggregate, let’s maybe try to look at the singular. Maybe let’s just focus on a key aspect. Let’s see if we can simplify it down to a crucial element before putting out the call. I’ve heard actors do this sometimes—base their characters on a specific creature, a specific attitude, or a specific object, and then they develop it from there. So, before we relay any of this, before we mention a word of the above, let’s simplify what we are looking for, avoid the bath water of all of the others, and let’s see if we can get at what we are after by honing it all down to a particular thing that suits him, something that fits him, that has that texture all the way through, that swag, that certain sound. Remember his grey jacket? That exposed leather? Let’s cut all of this down to that single word that relays more than any other. It’ll never be perfect, but to strive toward that end, brother, the best we can do is find someone who sounds like and looks damn good in suede.


    Joseph C. Clark

    Suede: a leather that has been worked to produce a nap; made from splitting the underside of a hard leather and sanding the surface, suede is more pliable than typical leather; a suede belt will ‘snap’ faster, but the burred surface is softer and warmer than hard leather. Suede will protect you, but suede takes special care. Suede is often tattered. Ordinary leather left to exact elements can over time become like suede. Chamois is suede; it will destroy itself in an effort to produce a shine that nothing else can reveal.

    When we look for someone to play the part of our father, we will need to consider someone who can merge the following: Peter Faulk’s Columbo, Al Pacino in Serpico, Clint Eastwood from Grand Turino, and we can’t forget the Fonz. Do you remember how the kids at the gas station would ask if he was the real deal, and he’d give them a thumbs-up at the pump, his hair slicked back, a thick looping pompadour and those square sideburns? He’d check the oil, wipe the windows, and then send the passengers off with smiles after hanging the nozzle back in its nook, a grin and a flash of those knowing eyebrows as the kids told their parents “I told you so!” as they all drove off.
    I’m thinking Harvey Keitel, maybe, with that thin-lined smile from Mean Streets. And maybe De Niro, Raging Bull, someone who can hold the posture of a fighter, arms bent, knees slightly flexed, like he has stood for so many decades—always ready to deliver a punch, even if only taking a drag from his cigarette or a taste from his cup of tea. And that smile, playful, almost daring you to take the first swing.
    Do you remember our house on Parma? Of course you do. 607, our first address. With the exterior cedar panel siding, that soft grayish blue? Remember how we had to be careful while he was building the house so we wouldn’t get slivers from those panels, so we wouldn’t fall on nails, so we wouldn’t get smacked down by pieces of lumber coming and going? And those open stairs . . . how many years went by where we could have just fallen right through? Those cedar sheets always remind me of his voice, ruff but comforting, full of splinters but complete, a warm look despite those grabby little barbs that could hook into you at any second if you weren’t careful—“Outta the way, outta the way. C’mon c’mon ‘cmon ‘cmon c’mon. Outta’da’way, outta’da’way,” he would say, as he shooed us along from one small walk-way to another, navigating through those heaps of debris, those piles of material that would go into our house, those miles of tape, mud, nail boxes, glue tubes, screws, the fabrication of our youth. He would use that voice to keep moving us so he could continue to work.
    Even when he whistles a tune it has that texture. And when he sings, that layered voice pushed from a body that has taken belly-strikes, lungs that have wailed for lost children, a throat that knows the grip of his own father’s hands, of his brother’s hands, of your hands, a voice that could scream a man twice his size down to a quiet friend again, a rasp that could grow into an immediate tornado or whisper like a single leaf among the tall grass next to a pond in autumn; a voice that sounds like something was healing and breaking again at the same time, like a lining of blood he has tasted for decades has merged with a sweet coat of honey somewhere deep down in his throat. I’ve heard him break into song, but I’ve never heard him get lost in one long enough to finish. He’d just start singing some tune, some blues, and then after a verse or two, he would just stop, look over at you, flash those eyebrows up and down, playfully let you know there’s a spark of music under there. A little secret he’d choose to share now and again.
    When we look for someone, we will have to capture that voice, and we will need to see what we can do about the face, too. All that history below that full head of perfect hair, once jet black, now silver, still combed back thick, the same way he combed it in that old photo of him and his brother, matching do’s, sleeves rolled, bookend pre-teen greasers, each with a hand on the hip and a foot up on the bumper of that ‘56 Chrysler, their baby sister sitting on the hood between them—perhaps the last year his skin was still perfect. How many cars like that has he torn down? Stripped down to metal again, smoothing the surfaces, making it all clean again, perfect lines from every angle? “Everything is in the prep work,” he always said. “Painting anything is easy. It’s all prepping the surface. All of it, so once you put the paint to it, the eyes have nowhere to stop.” How many years has he spent creating pristine surfaces, something he lost long ago?
    We will need the face of someone who can appreciate and do smooth in a way most people simply cannot; maybe start with Edward James Almos from American Me, someone with the scars but not the panic. A topography that is not perfect but consistent. Beyond rugged, but not beaten. Someone who looks like they’ve been in accidents, like they’ve caused accidents, like they’ve rescued themselves and others from twisted metal heaps. We need someone whose face is marked from beer bottles—that one deposit at the corner of his left eyebrow and the small hunk taken from the end of his nose—and other marks from fist fights, from car wrecks, and all of it touched everywhere by the acne that drove him from school at the age of 15—one final fight with his father, and then he put down the pencil and picked up a hoc and a 10 inch knife, learned from Uncle Scotty what it would take to start smoothing his rage, to pay for a room, to make his way on his own terms, to have hands that can shape matter, move material, and eyes that would learn to smile in their hunt for perfection. How many walls has he built? How many structures has he had to repair before placing the final tins, the sheet rock, the finished layer of veneer? How many seams, cracks, and holes has he patched and filled, how many broken surfaces has he smoothed to make like brand new again, so that when you look, when it’s all over, not a single finger print, not a single brush mark, just a clean surface, so you’d never know a hand was there?
    I still have a piece of sandpaper he gave me when I was 16. I had moved in with him and Anne. I was driving him around, working with him every day in the summer, going to Hello Folks and Grand Tracks after a job to pay his guys, maybe shoot a game of pool, maybe close some loose ends or dig up some more work. Seeing me stir on my bar stool, itching to get out to catch up with my friends, he bought me a soda. He flashed his eyebrows up and down a couple of times real quick, gave me that smile, and he put his rough grips on my shoulders, massaged me a bit, tussled my hair, and then he said in his occasional Michael Landon way, “Take this,” giving me some cash, counting out the twenties one at a time, “. . . for your hours at Krupka’s . . . and some more just because,” adding a wink. “That’ll get you through for a while.” Then, pulling a quarter sheet of sandpaper from his shirt pocket, holding it up by a bottom corner, displaying it to me like it was the Eucharist, “and take this . . . because you’re gonna need it. This will help SMOOTH-out the edges; it will get you through the rough parts as you go along.” With his thick hands covering mine, he looked into me, pushed his bottom lip tight into his top lip, nodded a couple slow deliberate nods, winked again, and then turned away with a hurried, playful bark to the bartender, “Alright! Alright! What the hell is goin’ on over here? Why is my glass almost empty, sweetheart! C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, don’t let me go dry here, baby-doll, it’s a hot day-ey.”
    Remembering the summers of the early ‘90’s, driving that 1978 Ford F-150 Ranger we refinished, it seems appropriate to mention the small white molded plastic statue that rested on that dashboard. That little happy man, maybe 6 inches tall, with his arm around a giant wing-tip that was upright, standing slightly taller than himself, the details of the laces, the soul, the tongue all perfect. You gave him that little trophy for Father’s day so many years earlier, and he has kept it on the dashboard of every vehicle he has owned ever since. It has lasted through every season for decades. It still had three of the four green felt circles on the bottom of the base, and when you shook it you could hear the ‘hush-hush’ of the grains of sand, which had more room to move than they should, and which I knew were white and sharp and slightly bigger than table salt, because many years earlier while waiting for him to get some cartons of smokes, I pried open the little plastic cork on the bottom, and I had to sweep a little heap of pellets down the vents beneath the windshield of his old blue and white 1980 Chevy G-Series van. Even at a young age I understood the implications of the words across the front of the base, and now, even with the rest of the surfaces bleached from the sun, deep inside those deeply pressed letters, the dark dye is still prominent and just as clear: “No one can fill my Father’s shoes.”
    So, maybe that little gift you gave him was a prophecy. Maybe he kept that little guy up there to remind us. To make it deliberate. Like maybe he knew someday our story would have to be told. Maybe he was wishing us some sarcastic good luck. Or, maybe it was simply something that nudged him to be there for us in a way that maybe his old man was not there for him. Maybe he held it for so long out of obligation. Maybe he kept it as a tribute to you, to all of us, and at the same time as a reminder to himself.
    I’m sorry, I know I’ve gone off course a bit; I know that doesn’t seem very helpful, and I know we can’t operate on that as a premise. We can’t just not cast someone because no one can play the role. We will, at some point, have to make a decision if we are going to do this. I had some ideas for us, things to think about, some actors and characters that could help us get started, but now it is clear that we will come too soon to the crossroads where what he has always said, strive for perfection and you’ll end up with a very fine product, intersects with the ever practical the perfect is the enemy of the good. We want it right, but in the end, we'll need to decide. We can aim all we want; we can see the isolated bull’s-eyes on various targets, but at some point, the trigger needs to be pulled and we only have one shot. We will need to choose one.
    So, maybe we should take another approach. Maybe instead of starting with the marked complexion of Edward James Almos; the thin smile of Harvey Keitel; the loose, rambling wit of Colombo; the cool of the Fonzy; the tenacity of Serpico; the righteous disdain of Eastwood; the fight, reckless passion, and the hunger of Jake LaMotta; instead of imagining that if the Wolverine were mortal and you could watch him grow old, instead of thinking that if we could just take these elements from each of the above and drop them on a palette and stir them all together, add a final smudge of crimson, the smallest scosche of Van Dyke brown, and a final heaping-spoonful of resin made from crushing the barbs, pedals, stems, and the bold crowns of thistle—how if we could do that we might be getting close—instead of looking at an impossible perfect aggregate, let’s maybe try to look at the singular. Maybe let’s just focus on a key aspect. Let’s see if we can simplify it down to a crucial element before putting out the call. I’ve heard actors do this sometimes—base their characters on a specific creature, a specific attitude, or a specific object, and then they develop it from there. So, before we relay any of this, before we mention a word of the above, let’s simplify what we are looking for, avoid the bath water of all of the others, and let’s see if we can get at what we are after by honing it all down to a particular thing that suits him, something that fits him, that has that texture all the way through, that swag, that certain sound. Remember his grey jacket? That exposed leather? Let’s cut all of this down to that single word that relays more than any other. It’ll never be perfect, but to strive toward that end, brother, the best we can do is find someone who sounds like and looks damn good in suede.
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